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National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Policy and Global Affairs; Board on Higher Education and Workforce; Committee on Effective Mentoring in STEMM; Dahlberg ML, Byars-Winston A, editors. The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2019 Oct 30.

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The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM.

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2The Science of Mentoring Relationships: What Is Mentorship?

Mentorship is an activity in which science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) professionals engage to help develop the next generation of STEMM professionals. While that statement may be a truism, it does not adequately address three important questions: What exactly is mentorship? What makes it effective? How does it occur in various settings? Mentoring relationships can be intentionally created and developed, and there is a substantial scholarship—a science of mentoring relationship1—to inform this process. This chapter provides an overview of historical and evolving perspectives on mentoring, introduces a working definition of mentorship, and summarizes several theoretical frameworks supporting this definition.


Historical Perspectives

The word “mentor” comes from the character Mentor in Homer's Odyssey. When Odysseus, king of Ithaca, went off to fight in the Trojan War, he asked his trusted friend Mentor to advise and teach his son, Telemachus. In time, the term mentor came to refer to someone who is a guide and educator, and a mentoring relationship was seen as a relationship between a teacher and student. The notion of mentorship is largely idealized as a positive thing, though original Greek conceptions painted a more complex picture of the relationship between Mentor and Telemachus (Garvey, 2017). A mentoring relationship, like any relationship, has good and bad moments—and good and bad outcomes—and mentoring experiences can range from effective to dysfunctional (Scandura, 1998). Mentoring involves both benefits and costs to those engaged in mentoring relationships.

A 1991 review of the then-current state of the mentoring literature across disciplines identified 15 different definitions (Jacobi, 1991). This review noted three commonalities among the definitions:

  • Mentoring relationships emphasize helping the individual grow and accomplish goals and include several approaches to doing so.
  • A mentoring experience may provide professional and career development support, role modeling, and psychosocial support; mentoring experiences should include planned activities with a mentor.
  • Mentoring relationships are personal and reciprocal, though online mentorship options are creating opportunities to build virtual mentoring relationships.

By the time a subsequent review of the literature published between 1990 and 2007 was conducted, researchers had created more than 50 definitions for mentoring (Crisp and Cruz, 2009).

While definitions of mentoring vary, they often refer to core functions of mentoring relationships. Groundbreaking work published in 1983 identified two primary functions in mentoring: providing psychosocial support that includes role modeling, and offering career or instrumental support that includes providing challenging work toward skill development (Kram, 1983).2 Table 2-1 presents a summary of various mentoring functions, organized according to whether they relate to psychosocial or career support.

Historically in the United States, and especially in STEMM, mentoring has carried a connotation of a mostly unidirectional relationship between a more senior individual using life experience and acquired knowledge to guide the development, growth, or entry of the mentee into future life stages or career paths. Typically, mentoring has been used to describe an extended relationship distinct from the relationship with a teacher, which is often more focused, shorter-lived, and devoted primarily to mastering and applying new knowledge. Unlike teaching, which has evolved a rich base of pedagogical practices often based on rigorous experimental design, mentoring has usually been based on the individualized practices of mentors who often tenaciously resist structure or approaches that would limit their domain of “expertise.”

TABLE 2-1Mentorship Functions

Support FunctionsRelated Behaviors and Activities
Psychosocial Support
Psychological and emotional supportMentor encourages mentees, helps with problem solving, and uses active-listening techniques.a
Role modelingMentor serves as a guide for mentees' behavior, values, and attitudes. Mentees benefit from engaging with mentor who shares values and deep-level similarity with them.b Allows mentees to see themselves as future academics.c
Career (Instrumental) Support
Career guidanceMentor provides support for assessing and choosing an academic and career path by evaluating mentees' strengths, weaknesses, interests, and abilities. Mentor's role includes
  • helping mentees reflect and think critically about goals;d
  • facilitating mentees' reflection on and exploration of their interests, abilities, beliefs, and ideas;e
  • reviewing mentees' progress toward goals;
  • challenging mentees' decisions or avoidance of decisions;f and
  • helping mentees to realize their professional aspriations.g
Skill developmentMentor educates, evaluates, and challenges mentees academically and professionally; tutors or provides training; and focuses on subject learning.h
SponsorshipMentor publicly acknowledges the achievements of mentees and advocates for mentees.

Evolving Perspectives

Over the past two decades, a paradigm shift has led to reframing mentoring relationships as definable, reciprocal, and dynamic. According to this new framing, effective mentoring requires complex skills that can be taught, practiced, and mastered, and it accrues measurable benefits for mentees and mentors. Mentoring relationships are now seen as collaborative processes in which mentees and mentors take part in reciprocal and dynamic activities such as planning, acting, reflecting, questioning, and problem solving (McGee, R., 2016).

A 1997 National Academies report, Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering, noted that the mentor's roles comprise multiple dimensions, including those listed in the report's title, and that the mentee's roles include committing to the mentoring relationship, sharing responsibility with the mentor for the quality of that relationship, and clearly communicating needs and expectations (NAS-NAE-1OM, 1997). Most roles described in the report reflect the psychosocial support functions of mentoring and a focus on mentoring behaviors the mentor demonstrates toward the student. This unidirectional mentoring view is consistent with the apprenticeship model that has been a central paradigm in training future professionals for centuries (McGee, R., 2016). In the apprenticeship model, the role of mentors has been focused historically on replicating the mentors' skills in the apprentices or mentees. Expanding beyond the apprenticeship model is another shift in perspectives on mentoring relationships, one that emphasizes the mentees' role and agency in their mentored experiences (Balster et al., 2010; Lee et al., 2015). Although Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend continues to be a useful mentoring resource in STEMM, knowledge about mentoring relationships has since expanded. The contexts in which they occur are more varied, and the number of individuals participating in a given relationship has increased, prompting the request for new perspectives about, and resources for, both mentors and mentees.

The definition of mentoring has been expanded to go beyond a relationship between two individuals—a dyadic mentoring relationship—to include a broad array of additional constructs and relationships. This expansion has come about through the recognition that, in many cases, there are more efficient and more effective ways for mentees to develop wisdom and expertise than by having it imparted by a single mentor and that one mentor is not likely to fulfill all of a mentee's needs (Higgins and Kram, 2001). Moving beyond the “one mentor–one mentee” approach to mentoring relationships becomes especially critical in contexts where relatively few mentors are available to meet the mentoring requirements of many mentees or when one mentor cannot meet all the mentoring commitments of a particular mentee.

Early research investigated mentoring relationships that occurred naturally over the course of a person's life (Levinson, 1978). To confer the advantages of informal mentoring relationships more systematically and broadly to those who might not otherwise have access to them, formal programs developed in workplace settings, youth programming, and academic environments across many disciplines. Some examples of possible mentoring relationships are provided in Box 2-1.

Box Icon

BOX 2-1

The Variety of Mentoring Relationships.


With the evolution of mentoring practice and having reviewed the extant literature, the committee concluded that the term mentorship shifts focus away from a set of unidirectional actions of the mentors toward the mentoring relationships that are based on experiences across numerous approaches, structures, and contexts. This relationship-centric focus emphasizes mentoring processes and experiences in the context of a developmental partnership. For the purposes of this report, the committee worked from a broad-based definition of mentoring relationships in STEMM that includes both the intense, lasting, reciprocal relationships that form between one mentor and one mentee and the increasingly recognized forms of group and peer relationships, all of which complement the critically formative relationships in research training. The committee developed the following definition as a common starting point for STEMM practitioners and researchers, as well as for the purposes of this report:

Mentorship is a professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development, and success of the relational partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support.

Mentorship is operationalized for STEMM contexts through the career support functions (e.g., career guidance, skill development, sponsorship) and psychosocial support functions (e.g., psychological and emotional support, role modeling) aimed at mentee talent development. Mentorship complements other developmental processes like teaching or coaching to support mentees in developing knowledge and skills,3 and is essential to the holistic development of scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicians, including but not limited to developing a strong identity as a STEMM professional, developing confidence in one's ability to work as a STEMM professional, and successfully navigating the culture of STEMM.

The clinical construct known as the working alliance or therapeutic alliance is an important element within the committee's definition of mentorship. The working alliance is a variable in the psychotherapy process that helps explain behavior change (Ackerman and Hilsenroth, 2003) and emphasizes a conscious and active collaboration between therapists and clients—or in this case, mentors and mentees. Three features applicable to all support relationships, of which a mentoring relationship is one type, characterize the working alliance as “an agreement on goals, an assignment of task or a series of tasks, and the development of bonds” (Bordin, 1979). The committee included the notion of a working alliance in its mentorship definition to call attention to both technical (e.g., career functions) and relational (e.g., psychosocial functions) aspects in mentorship that contribute to effective mentoring relationships and mentee outcomes.4

Mentorship is often conflated with coaching, advising, role modeling, and sponsorship. All of these behaviors can occur within mentorship and reflect the various activities in the psychosocial and career mentorship functions. Shifting from the classic conceptualization of mentoring (i.e., unidirectional from mentor to mentee) to the concept of mentorship encourages refocusing on the specific roles that mentors and mentees both play in their mentoring relationships. This shift begins to focus on “assets” that reflect skills and abilities that mentees must develop, with mentors using a variety of strategies to cultivate success in STEMM (Johnson and Bozeman, 2012). For example, coaching is most often focused on addressing specific issues for achieving career aspirations or imparting specific competencies in the near term, such as how to write a scientific paper (Grant, 2006; Ragins and McFarlin, 1990), while advising typically provides feedback about specific questions, such as the classes a student needs to take to graduate (NAS-NAE-IOM, 1997). Role modeling, which provides an example of professional behavior for someone to emulate, does not necessarily involve a relationship, whereas sponsorship involves a senior person publicly acknowledging the achievements of and advocating for a mentee (Kram, 1985a; Ragins and McFarlin, 1990).

To some extent, the practice of mentorship in academic STEMM settings has focused on career support and development of mentees' skills and research productivity, as well as on career choice. However, effective mentorship should also provide meaningful psychosocial support that addresses the ongoing emotional and social needs of mentees (Eby et al., 2013; Gurin et al., 2002; Paglis et al., 2006; Schockett and Haring-Hidore, 1985) and enhances an individual's sense of competence, identity, and effectiveness in a professional role (Kram, 1985a).5 Psychosocial functions of mentorship work at an interpersonal level (Simon et al., 2008) and represent a more relational aspect of the mentoring relationship (Allen et al., 2004).

Effective Mentorship Behaviors

Every mentoring relationship is different. There are, however, core behaviors of mentees and mentors that are likely to yield effective mentoring relationships, regardless of whether they are created formally or informally. Such behaviors include aligning expectations, building rapport, maintaining open communication, and facilitating mentee agency.6 Empirical evidence shows that mentors enacting these behaviors have mentees who favorably rate the quality of their mentoring relationships (Pfund et al., 2014). Effective mentorship behaviors also include addressing diversity factors and being mindful of equity in the mentoring relationship (Pfund et al., 2013).7 Emerging evidence suggests that mentoring practices that include navigating power differentials between mentors and mentees especially across racial or gender differences, reducing stereotype threat, and affirming a sense of belonging and science identity may contribute to fuller representation of individuals from underrepresented groups in the sciences (Byars-Winston et al., 2018; Estrada et al., 2017).8

Effective mentorship occurs when mentors and mentees develop trust, share strengths and limitations, and identify with and authentically engage with one another (Blake-Beard et al., 2011). Some researchers call this mentorship attribute interpersonal comfort, or the ability to speak freely and express opinions without repercussion. Research has also shown that interpersonal factors and having deep-level similarities between mentees and mentors is associated with interpersonal comfort,9 which in turn predicts the provision and receipt of psychosocial and career (instrumental and networking) support (Brunsma et al., 2017; Ortiz-Walters and Gilson, 2005).10

Mentorship Stages

Mentorship behaviors can be applied in some or all stages of mentoring relationships. Groundbreaking research published in 1985 conceptualized four sequential stages through which mentoring relationships evolve based on qualitative research in organizational settings (Kram, 1985a):


Initiation, when mentors and mentees form expectations and get to know one another


Cultivation, when the relationship matures and mentors typically provide the greatest degree of psychosocial and career support


Separation, when mentees seek autonomy and more independence from mentors


Redefinition, when mentors and mentees transition into a different form of relationship characterized by more peer-like interactions or terminate the relationship

Over the course of their academic and career pursuits, mentees' expectations and needs are likely to change (McGowan et al., 2007). As such, the type of support needed from and provided by mentors will vary across different mentorship stages (Pollock, 1995). One investigator, for example, found that mentees in the initiation stage reported perceiving they received less career and psychosocial mentorship than those in the other three mentorship stages (Chao, 1997). Because mentors and mentees have various expectations of one another based on their own needs, which can change over time, challenges may arise from misaligned expectations in their relationship across mentorship stages. For example, an empirical study of working professionals found that those who were just entering into a mentoring relationship reported fewer challenges regarding that relationship than did those in the mature or ending stages of their relationships (Ensher and Murphy, 2011). Together, these findings suggest that attending to the mentorship needs and potential relational challenges that can arise across mentorship stages is critical to overall quality of and satisfaction with mentorship.


Although much of the mentorship that takes place at the nation's institutions of higher education is done on an ad hoc basis, there is, in fact, a breadth of theory and supportive research that is potentially informative for understanding and improving mentorship. The committee's intent in this section is to provide enough information to engage in a conversation about use of theoretical models or frameworks that other fields have found useful for understanding human behavior, including students' decision-making processes and choices, and to incorporate these principles into their mentorship work and research. The six theories presented here are not a comprehensive list of the frameworks used by researchers in developing an understanding of mentorship. Rather, the committee hopes this information will help frame a set of greater conversations by providing language, constructs, and theoretical underpinnings that in turn can guide the creation of a culture of effective and inclusive mentorship. The information presented here can encourage and stimulate both more theoretically informed and evidence-based mentorship practices and more practitioner-informed research. Table 2-2 summarizes some primary elements for each theory. For each theory presented, its primary tenets are explained first, followed by a description of the theory as applied to mentorship.

Ecological Systems Theory

Primary Tenets

According to the ecological systems theory framework, individuals participating in mentorship bring to a mentoring relationship various behaviors, personal factors, and environmental variables that shape their mentorship needs and expectations and their responses to mentorship. Rather than focusing on mentorship as a primarily individual-level exchange between a mentor and mentee, this theory emphasizes that mentoring relationships occur over, and are influenced by, five levels or systems varying in degree of direct effect on the relationship:


Microsystem refers to the one-on-one relationships and the level at which most people think about mentorship.


Mesosystem refers to the interaction of these microsystems or the linkages between the microsystems. An example of a mesosystem would be the relationship between a faculty mentor and another professor who teaches a mentee in class.


Exosystem refers to the linkages between microsystems that do not involve the person, such as the relationship between a mentee's school environment and neighborhood or between a mentee's family and school. Other examples of influences on mentorship that operate at the exosystem level include disciplinary norms and institutional supports.


Macrosystem refers to the cultural influences on the micro-, meso-, and exosystems. Workforce trends, national politics, and global developments all affect mentorship at the macrosystem level. Institutionalized racism and stereotype threat also operate at this level.


Chronosystem refers to changes over time. For example, beliefs about women attending college have changed dramatically since the 1960s, when many women could not apply to certain universities, let alone engage in mentorship.

TABLE 2-2Theory Decoder for Thinking about Mentorship

TheoryCore PremiseCore ApproachUseful for Questions Such as …
Ecological Systems TheoryIndividuals are situated within systems (departments, colleges, universities).Focus on how systems' cultural practices influence individual behaviors proximally and distally over time.
  • How do mentees navigate competing values/priorities between their training environment and their family of origin?
  • In what ways does stereotype threat emanating from the macrosystem influence mentoring practices?
Social Cognitive Career TheoryIndividuals' beliefs and behaviors are socially constructed and influenced.Focus on how individuals form interests and goals, and make choices about careers based on learning experiences, self-efficacy, and outcome expectations.
  • What learning experiences in mentoring exchanges shape research self-efficacy?
  • Do these differ by cultural groups?
Tripartite Integration Model of Social InfluenceIndividuals develop science identities based on orientation to rules, roles, and values.Focus on the process of socialization and integration into a given community (e.g., STEMM).
  • How does mentorship shape mentees' science identity?
  • Does socialization to the rules, roles, and values in STEMM communities interact with mentees' racial, ethnic, and gender identities?
Social Exchange TheoryEvery relationship has tangible and intangible benefits and costs.Focus on reciprocity in mentoring relationships.
  • How do those in mentoring relationships appraise the value of their mentoring investments?
  • What are the costs and benefits of mentoring to mentors and mentees?
Social Capital TheoryDominant groups reproduce social inequality.Focus on access to knowledge and resources that facilitate social mobility and “fit.”
  • What skills, knowledge, attitudes, and values do emerging scientists need to “fit” into their disciplinary culture?
  • How are mentees differentially evaluated based on their race, ethnicity, or gender?
Social Network TheorySocial interactions in a network vary by strength of relationships and the resources available in the relationships.Focus on how individuals are connected in a social system, for what purpose, and to what end.
  • Who is connected in a given mentoring network and how does that influence mentee success?
  • What social networks are effective in developing mentees and do those vary across diverse groups?


While a mentoring relationship develops among individuals, it also occurs in the context of a department, college, and university, each with policies and practices that influence the success of both the mentee and the mentoring relationship. In addition, the success of the mentoring relationship depends at least in part on the cultural and social attitudes and practices of the individuals in that relationship (Bronfenbrenner, 1993). One study on mentorship with graduate psychology students from underrepresented backgrounds revealed that effective mentorship addressed the students' contexts and the interconnections across those contexts or systems (Chan et al., 2015). For those reasons, ecological systems theory can inform concepts of communities of practice11 and a culture of mentorship according to two guiding propositions: that individuals develop through prolonged interaction with others and that immediate and distant environments influence this development.

Mentorship, from an ecological systems theory perspective, requires accounting for individual and environmental systems being reciprocal and interdependent and not independent of one another (Chandler et al., 2011). For example, a mentor might do well to identify and attend to how a mentee is managing different values and priorities across multiple systems and how that influences the mentee's academic and career development. From an ecological perspective, mentorship can be thought of as a systems property rather than as an interaction between a mentor and mentee, which suggests that research on mentorship and the practice of mentorship should also focus on developmental networks, institutional context, and societal macrosystems.

Social Cognitive Career Theory

Primary Tenets

Building on formative work on social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), researchers have articulated social cognitive career theory (SCCT) to explain individuals' motivation, goal setting, and persistence in achieving a desired academic outcome and career path (Lent et al., 1994). Those mechanisms include two primary factors influencing individuals' choices and actions: self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations. Self-efficacy refers to the belief individuals have in their own abilities to meet the challenges they face and complete a task successfully, and outcome expectations refer to a belief about the likelihood of the behavior leading to a specific outcome. Together, these inform an individual's capability to self-regulate, engage in self-directed learning, motivate oneself, set goals, and persist in the pursuit of those goals (Byars-Winston et al., 2010, 2017). College and university students who are confident in their ability to do well in their classes and who are sure in the belief that obtaining a STEMM degree will help fulfill their aspirations will be more likely to continue to pursue their degrees and set goals to accomplish that pursuit, even while having to overcome challenges. SCCT also recognizes that factors outside of individuals, such as family support and economic need, can affect how people make choices regarding the educational and career paths they choose (Pfund et al., 2016). Studies with individuals in STEMM fields have generated considerable empirical evidence supporting SCCT as a plausible model to explain factors affecting persistence across gender, racial and ethnic groups, and career stages, from undergraduates to early career faculty (Bakken et al., 2010; Byars-Winston et al., 2010; Gainor and Lent, 1998; Lent et al., 2005).


SCCT was used recently to depict how academic and career-related behaviors in STEMM domains occur through interactions with individuals, including mentors and mentees, and their environments. Importantly, SCCT specifies four sources of learning that give rise to and shape self-efficacy and outcome expectancy beliefs: previous performance, vicarious learning, affective/emotional arousal, and social persuasion (Byars-Winston et al., 2016, 2017). Investigators have applied the SCCT model to explain how mentored research is a learning experience in itself in that mentorship provides one or more of the four sources of learning that subsequently influence mentees' self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations (Byars-Winston et al., 2015). Therefore, how mentees perceive the quality and content of mentorship they receive is likely to have a significant influence on their academic and career outcomes. Indeed, an empirical test of an expanded SCCT model with biology undergraduate mentees found that mentees' perceptions of their mentors' effectiveness strongly shaped their beliefs in their own research skills and career knowledge and predicted their research self-efficacy beliefs, which in turn predicted their enrollment in a Ph.D. or graduate medical program (Byars-Winston et al., 2015).

An expanded SCCT model incorporating the sources of learning gained from mentorship has also been tested and found to support the association between sources of learning and research self-efficacy beliefs and between sources of learning and science identity, with some group differences by race/ethnicity and gender for Black/African American and Latinx STEMM students (Byars-Winston and Rogers, 2019). SCCT holds promise for investigating effective mentorship, and for guiding interventions when mentorship is poor, by providing an understanding of how mentees' beliefs and behaviors related to academic and career choice processes are socially influenced and strongly shaped by interactions with others, particularly mentors.

Tripartite Integration Model of Social Influence

Primary Tenets

The tripartite integration model of social influence (TIMSI) explains how individuals become socialized and integrated into a given community. Integration into any community is based on an individual becoming oriented to the rules, roles, and values of that community. In the context of STEMM fields, rules refer to how to do science, roles refer to science identity and how to be a scientist, and values refer to the internalization of the scientific value system. TIMSI has served as a framework for understanding how individuals become integrated into and identified with the scientific community (Estrada et al., 2011, 2018; Hernandez, 2018). The assumption is that students' intention to continue to pursue a scientific career is predicated on becoming part of the scientific community in the future. This model illustrates the importance of how students' professional identity—in this context, their science identity—and their endorsement of scientific community values predict their intentions to persist in STEMM career pathways.


Examining mentorship through a TIMSI lens suggests that faculty mentors socialize students into science careers and culture by providing an example of the attitudes, norms, and behaviors required to achieve success similar to that of the mentor. Empirical findings from a sample of underrepresented (UR) undergraduate and graduate students in STEM revealed that science identity and internalization of community values were significantly predictive of students' persistence (Estrada et al., 2011).12 Another study found that the influence of mentorship on UR students' postbaccalaureate persistence in STEM pathways was mediated by science identity (Estrada et al., 2018). The TIMSI lens helps elucidate the role of mentorship in facilitating UR mentees' integration not just into STEMM careers but into STEMM culture. For example, UR graduate students in STEM may have acquired the skills and knowledge to successfully perform in their chosen fields and even internalized the community values of their disciplines, but they may experience different social interactions with their mentors and peers that result in different socialization into the field. This is especially challenging given numerous studies chronicling the suboptimal mentorship experiences UR students have at predominantly White institutions,13 sometimes characterized by racial microaggressions and overt discrimination from both faculty mentors and peers,14 as well as a lack of institutional support, leaving some students doubting their STEMM abilities and wondering, “Is STEMM for me?” (Alexander and Hermann, 2016; Johnson et al., 2011; Ong et al., 2011).

Social Exchange Theory

Primary Tenets

Social exchange theory (Blau, 1964) holds that people are self-interested actors who engage in relationships to reach their goals and objectives by accruing valued resources or benefits in exchange for providing something of value to the other participants in the relationship. This type of interaction generates obligations (Emerson, 1976). Since every relationship incurs benefits and some tangible or intangible cost, individuals will make choices about their relationships based on how they weigh the perceived costs and benefits. In addition to its use in analyzing mentees' experiences, social exchange theory provides a framework for understanding the costs and negative experiences that mentors may encounter from mentorship, including psychosocial costs such as burnout, anger, grief, and loss, and career costs such as decreased productivity, diminished reputation, and risk of ethical transgressions (Eby et al., 2013; Lunsford et al., 2013). If the costs outweigh the benefits, individuals will likely reduce how often they participate in a relationship—in this case, mentorship.


Social exchange theory provides a means for understanding the potential benefits and costs of mentorship for both mentors and mentees, thereby enabling institutions to create structures and put policies in place to maximize the benefits and minimize or mitigate the costs. Social exchange theory emphasizes that the interdependent transactions between the participants in a relationship have the potential to generate high-quality relationships when the benefits of the exchange are greater than perceived costs (Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005). Beyond commonly noted benefits of mentorship for mentees, such as career advancement, skills development, and academic benefits (e.g., grades, degree attainment, obtaining fellowships), social exchange theory also holds that mentors learn and obtain a variety of benefits from their mentoring relationships, such as improved productivity and professional reputation (Griffin, 2012). Applying this theory to mentorship draws attention to considering how mentees and mentors in mentoring relationships appraise the value—the relative benefit to cost—of their relationships. Having structures and policies that minimize or mitigate costs and increase the potential for positive interactions can enhance the possibility of beneficial outcomes for mentors, increasing the probability of mentors experiencing the rewards of being a good mentor.

Social Capital Theory

Primary Tenets

Social capital theory addresses the social reproduction of inequality, or how those who have power take advantage of their social networks and connections to retain power from one generation to the next (Bourdieu, 1977, 1986). Social capital comprises the knowledge, information, and resources an individual gets from social structures such as the social networks that determine who has access to key resources and information (Thompson et al., 2016). Social capital exists in the relationships among people (i.e., mentors and mentees), in their exchange of information, and in the changes in the relationships among persons that facilitate action (Aikens et al., 2016; Coleman, 1988). Social capital theory provides a framework that builds on assets and experiences rather than deficits, though much of social capital suggests that individuals who are outside of key networks are not positioned to attain information vital for success. The main components of social capital are as follows:


Trustworthiness, expectations, and obligations. For example, when a mentor does something for the mentee and trusts the mentee to take a certain action, it creates an expectation in the mentor and an obligation for the mentee.


Information channels, or who an individual can access to gain knowledge. Information is important because it provides a reason for action. For example, a faculty mentor might make a mentee aware of scholarship opportunities for which the student might apply.


Norms and effective sanctions. An individual can internalize some norms, though external rewards can support other norms, such as selfless behaviors, and undermine others, such as selfish actions. Norms and effective sanctions can both facilitate certain actions and constrain others. For example, scholars find that good mentors often set expectations about the importance of informal exchanges or supportive lab environments (Nakamura and Shernoff, 2009).


Funds of knowledge, which are the assets and experiences an individual brings to a relationship (Hogg, 2011–2012). For example, first-generation students may find it disrespectful to question their elders, while students who had parents who attended college know to challenge answers that do not make sense to them.


Social capital is defined by its function (Coleman, 1988), with the result that social capital theory prompts an examination of the ways in which mentors and mentees access information and resources in their mentoring relationships. A social capital framework can help examine how mentors transfer information channels (e.g., skill sets, resources) to their mentees about securing federal funding in the form of fellowships or grants and whether those information channels flow similarly across different mentees. For example, a high-performing, highly qualified doctoral student in STEM with multiple publications can be challenged when looking for a job because of a lack of social capital to activate personal connections and advocacy that could increase the student's visibility and attractiveness to potential employers. Social capital theory can also provide insights into the extent mentees are evaluated differentially in STEMM by mentors based on established norms and how those norms advantage some mentees and disadvantage others.

An investigation into how social capital is accessed through academic mentorship revealed that race, gender, and power dynamics influenced closeness in mentoring relationships, which in turn was associated with social capital creation (Smith, 2007). The author of this study concluded that a significant issue in mentorship programs is the lack of institutional accountability to ensure students from UR backgrounds in particular can build and sustain social capital needed for academic and career success. Social capital theory suggests that mentors should help mentees learn the values of their professions and fields of study. This theory also supports the idea that mentors should help their mentees maintain personal and professional integrity and navigate cultural and political systems (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009; Pfund et al., 2016; Zambrana et al., 2015). Mentors may benefit from being seen as having the skills to bring others along, often expected in academia, or by attracting additional excellent students to their labs through word of mouth. The theory also begs consideration of how social networks in mentorship operate to create knowledge and information, and suggests that mentors can learn new perspectives and approaches to mentorship and gain insights regarding scientific norms from mentees.

Social Network Theory

Primary Tenets

Social network theory (SNT) addresses the role that social relationships play in transmitting information, channeling personal or media influence, and empowering attitudinal or behavioral change (Dunn, 1983). The main premise underlying SNT is that social structure influences the patterns of interactions and relationships among individuals in a social group, thereby playing an important role in determining human behavior (Whitehead, 1997). SNT includes four primary assertions:


Individuals have different social experiences.


The indirect connections individuals have matter.


Individuals have different levels of importance in a given social network.


Social network connections in one context can influence social dynamics in other contexts.

SNT holds that upward mobility and the ability to mobilize resources and adapt to social situations are more common among individuals with large and diverse social networks than among those whose social networks are small and undiversified (Packard, 2003b; Santos and Reigadas, 2004; Zippay, 1995). Similarly, having acquaintances with ties to different social environments is likely to make it easier for an individual to access resources that are not in that individual's existing social networks.


SNT holds mentorship to be a system of interacting components in which the relationships in that system can represent a range of social behaviors—cooperative, competitive, hostile, or aggressive, for example—and where individuals in those systems vary in their degree of relatedness. Viewing mentorship through the lens of SNT can illustrate who in a given mentorship social network is connected to whom, by what relationship, and to what end. Consequently, the behavioral strategies used by individuals in a given mentorship system, that is, the social structure, will depend on how they are connected, to what degree they are connected, and for what purpose. The frequency of contact, shared attributes between mentors and mentees, and perceived emotional quality of the mentoring relationship have been found to positively associate with mentees' self-efficacy beliefs, academic success, and a positive sense of identity (Haeger and Fresquez, 2016; Santos and Reigadas, 2004). Questions to ask when applying SNT to understanding effective mentoring relationships might include the following (Flaherty et al., 2012):

  • Who is connected within the mentorship and tied to other professional networks, either directly or indirectly?
  • What flows across the network ties (e.g., tacit information, affective/psychosocial information, resource information)?
  • What ties or connection patterns are most effective in developing the mentee in the social network? How can mentors help mentees build and expand their networks?

According to an SNT framework for mentorship, mentees should build developmental networks from multiple, simultaneous relationships that provide valuable developmental assistance and advice (Higgins and Kram, 2001). Developmental relationships are either strong or weak depending on the degree of personal closeness, mutual exchange, and frequency of communication. Strong ties are used frequently and require regular management to stay healthy. With a greater degree of connection comes an increased capacity to trust and to convey complex information. Weak ties in a developmental network, such as those between members of the same academic department, are called upon infrequently, yet they can become conduits to necessary resources that are unavailable through strong ties and bridge gaps in a developmental network.

The Integration of Theoretical Models in Mentorship

Because theories operate with different foci and aims and at different levels, multiple theories may be needed to guide scholarship or the development of a program or intervention. A single theoretical model would fall short of adequately integrating the different theoretical, as well as the underlying philosophical, assumptions of models derived through qualitatively and quantitatively oriented work.

Mentorship research has been informed by myriad theoretical frameworks, including the six that are discussed here. There is no single theoretical framework that integrates all relevant variables (e.g., antecedents, processes, correlates, outcomes), and studies of mentorship have, based on different aims and objectives, utilized several theoretical models. Much of the mentorship intervention or education literature is not as strongly guided by theory, nor does it explicitly test theory. Instead, it is often driven by practical considerations.15 Table 2-2 provides a collation of theoretical components from the six theories that captures individual-, social-, and institution-level factors that empirical data show affect mentorship processes and outcomes and may be useful as a resource to guide further inquiry. In each of the remaining chapters, a box highlights how theory may inform the concepts that are discussed. However, the theories that are discussed in this chapter and referenced throughout this report are not meant to be exhaustive or definitive, but rather are intended to spark further investigation, identification of other relevant theoretical frameworks, and continued generation of theory-driven studies of mentorship.



For this report, science refers to “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of structures and behaviors through observation, experiment, and theory.” This definition was adapted from https://www​.realclearscience​.com/blog/2012​/11/we-talk-about-science-a-lot-but-what-is-it.html; accessed August 16, 2019.


A great deal of conceptual and empirical work on mentorship applicable to STEMM fields has been reported in the industrial and organizational psychology literature.


Coaching refers to activities that are most often focused on addressing specific issues for achieving career aspirations or imparting specific competencies in the near term, such as how to write a scientific paper.


Researchers investigating the working alliance construct in the context of mentorship and advising of graduate students in applied psychology have found positive correlations between the strength of working alliance and students' attitudes toward and self-efficacy for doing research (Schlosser and Gelso, 2001, 2005). Findings from another empirical study revealed that the working alliance moderated the impact of mentoring relationships on mentee outcomes for college students (Larose et al., 2010).


Identity refers to the composite of who a person is, the way one thinks about oneself, the way one is viewed by the world, and the characteristics that one uses to define oneself, such as gender identification, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, and even one's profession.


Mentorship behaviors are discussed in more detail in Chapter 5.


The roles of diversity, equity, and identity in mentorship are explored more fully in Chapter 3.


Power differential refers to the “perceived difference between mentor and mentee with regard to status, authority, and self-efficacy. High power-differentials limit the ways in which mentor and mentee regard one another, resulting in decreased mentee empowerment, creativity, and initiative” (Starr-Glass, 2014). Stereotype threat refers to a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's group applies.” According to stereotype threat theory, members of a marginalized group experience negative stereotyping of their group, and they demonstrate apprehension about confirming the negative stereotype by engaging in particular behaviors or thoughts that can compromise their performance in a given domain (Steele and Aronson, 1995).


Interpersonal factors may include a mentor's attachment to the mentoring relationship and the mentor being oriented to the outcomes of the mentee. Deep-level similarities include shared attitudes, goals, interests, values, and even perceived similarity in problem-solving style (Eby et al., 2013; Ortiz-Walters and Gilson, 2005).


Effective mentorship behaviors and education to facilitate both mentors and mentees enacting them are reviewed in detail in Chapter 5.


Communities of practice refers to “groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Lave and Wenger, 1991).


This report refers to UR groups as including women of all racial/ethnic groups and individuals specifically identifying as Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native. Where possible, the report specifies if the UR groups to which the text refers are Black, Latinx, or of American Indian/Alaska Native heritage.


For example, see Packard, 2016.


Microaggressions refer to “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment” (Sue, 2010).


There are exceptions, namely intervention and education work examined in Chapter 5 (e.g., Pfund et al., 2006).

Copyright 2019 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK552775


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